Olga Klebanovich: ‘I belong to those who are too much in love with life’

[b]Those in the know say that this actress presents a theatre within the theatre[/b] All becomes clear when you see People’s Artiste of Belarus Olga Klebanovich on stage in her ‘native’ Maxim Gorky National Academic Theatre. Over her illustrious career, she’s played about a hundred roles and has been awarded the prestigious national Frantsisk Skorina Medal. For a long time, she’s been acknowledged as a master of the stage. Moreover, if anyone visits her rehearsals and hears her unassumingly expressing vision for the performance to the director, it becomes clear why she is called ‘a theatre within the theatre’.
Those in the know say that this actress presents a theatre within the theatre

Olga being a student. The picture appeared in June issue of the popular magazine “Ogonek” in 1964All becomes clear when you see People’s Artiste of Belarus Olga Klebanovich on stage in her ‘native’ Maxim Gorky National Academic Theatre. Over her illustrious career, she’s played about a hundred roles and has been awarded the prestigious national Frantsisk Skorina Medal. For a long time, she’s been acknowledged as a master of the stage. Moreover, if anyone visits her rehearsals and hears her unassumingly expressing vision for the performance to the director, it becomes clear why she is called ‘a theatre within the theatre’.
I was lucky enough to observe her performing and rehearsing. The director sometimes stopped the actors to allow them to express their wishes and I saw that Olga’s partners listened to her words carefully. I understood then why her colleagues — especially young actors — feel grateful to be working with her. She boasts huge energy and is an expert in her profession. No one can disagree with her remarks. Moreover, the actors have no wish to object. As a rule, Olga is always right in her suggestions regarding characters’ behaviour. Talking to her is a true pleasure.
I’ve often interviewed Olga, writing about premiere performances in which she has taken a leading role. She’s easy to chat to informally, with a cup of tea in hand. I feel that I know and understand her. Accordingly, I understand those professionals who call her a queen of theatre. As she speaks, you feel as if you’re watching a mini-performance. She’s extremely clever, able to express herself concisely, and is sincere — especially with those whom she trusts and with herself. She can sum up her reflections on life, the theatre and acting in a single ‘monologue’….

I think my path to the stage was predestined. I’m not a fan of mysticism but I recall a childhood dream. I lived in a village, with my grandfather and grandmother, near Slutsk in Minsk region. I lived there, enjoying rural life until my eighth year at school; my mother was involved in reconstructing Minsk after the war. On a hot summer’s day, I was in a field of cows and fell asleep on the edge of a rye field. I dreamt of a huge star falling on me from the sky, bright with yellow light. I thought I’d be burnt but suddenly felt myself surrounded by cool blue-gold rays, flooding over me. There was a force lifting me into the sky and radiance covered me. I felt great happiness, then woke up. For some time, the dream was forgotten. However, years passed and, when my first success came, I recalled this dream — while bowing after a successful performance. The exaltation I felt during the audience’s ovation was similar to the feelings I’d had in my dream. This is how my star guided me to the stage…

Since childhood, I’d sung well and even decided to enter the Conservatoire. Everyone said I’d become a soloist. I love to listen to actors singing, since they seem to create a story with their voices, revealing the inner drama of the word. My mother took me to Minsk to find a school for me and I saw a performance by the Russian Theatre — ‘Infinite Distance’. It featured Alexandra Klimova [People’s Artiste of the USSR — editor] in the role of an agronomist. I was impressed but thought that she should have played her role differently. I decided that I had to become an actress in order to change the situation and show rural life as it truly is. It’s a true miracle that I later worked with this theatre; I even had three major roles as village-women: Marylya (Yanka Kupala’s ‘Ravaged Nest’); the Woman (Ales Adamovich’s ‘Khatyn Story’); and Stepanida (Vasil Bykov’s ‘Sign of Trouble’). These were the key roles in my career.

Everything was going smoothly in my career, running itself. I easily gained entry to the Acting Department at the Theatre and Art Institute [now, the Academy of Arts — editor]. It was like flying upstairs! Directors often refer to ‘quality material’; this applied to me. From birth, I’d had a strong, easy voice and knew how to behave naturally on stage. God has blessed me. Life has sculpted me well, removing all that is unnecessary or alien.

Without false modesty, I can say that I’m able to listen to life, observe it and make choices. Life resembles a sound track; you run along but must listen to important sounds. Life is a medium from which anyone can draw what is needed. Being observant is vital to all actors; without this skill, you can’t advance professionally. I’ve always valued the books I’ve read and people I’ve met. Sometimes, an unintentional word can inspire serious reflection… on the meaning of life or an actor’s profession. Like a sponge, I’ve absorbed everything around me. It’s formed me and made me better. I love music, painting and anything which expands our consciousness. I’ve formed myself independently and continue to do so. Only in this way can I advance and improve.

I don’t feel bored when I’m alone — either in the forest, at home, in my summer cottage or on New York’s Broadway (where I visit my daughter, Dasha). When I was young, I didn’t understand why actors need solitude. Now, I love being alone; solitude allows me to better hear the sounds of the city, the silence of the forest or the roar of the sea. I feel the harmony of the soul when I’m alone. I’m convinced that our yearning for harmony is rooted in our human nature.

My profession is the basis of my life. However, this doesn’t mean that I don’t notice my surroundings. I do notice! I belong to those who are too much in love with life. Sometimes, I even feel that I notice its signs unconsciously. People passing by might be feeling joyful or sad. I observe them, seeing their gestures, facial expressions and manner of walking. Here is a young mother, taking her baby from a pram. A young father is nearby — and, of course, a smiling grandmother. On seeing them, I feel that I’m swimming in their waves of happiness. It makes me think of one of my characters, nurse Felitsiata, who gains happiness from those who are happy nearby. I take everything from life and use it on stage. I need to penetrate into every aspect; I smell, touch and, of course, admire. I need to remember this state for further use in my roles. Only then will audiences be impressed with my acting. It’s a paradoxical situation: outside the theatre I escape, to exist within it even greater.

Acting develops you as a person. For example, you receive a role and are left to face your character. Usually, the script only gives you hints, no exact details, so it’s left to you to discover your character: their personality and fate. You have to imagine and fill the character with the spirit of life. You also need to understand the writer who has created this very character rather than any other.

Strange things sometimes happen to me… hints of intuition. Sometimes, I don’t know how to play a character but, on waking up in the morning, I suddenly realise what’s needed. Really, I have a gut feeling. It
happens during rehearsals. A theatrical role involves speech, facial expression, gestures and the ability to listen and distribute emotions. Here, the school of mastery helps. Lessons from teachers can be applied.
My teacher, Vladimir Malankin, has been the ultimate source for me. In medicine, vaccinations are common. Studying under Mr. Malankin is a unique inoculation against theatrical maladies. His standards are so high. He’s taught me the correct intonation, allowing me to preserve my voice. He is a great teacher. We students passed through a true school of theatrical compassion with him.

While studying at the Institute, I always agreed to take any role, often picking up those other students refused. They wanted to play princesses and beauties while I eagerly played an elderly woman or the main character’s friend. I approached my major roles slowly. Later, I passionately wanted to play a vamp and took on Maryutka, from Lavrenev’s ‘41st’. I plunged into her revolutionary upheaval against the world, which contradicts the image of a true revolutionary. For the sketch, I bought a fish — a huge bream. According to the role, I was sitting on the sea shore, scaling it. A lieutenant who liked me began chatting and was musing on how beautiful life is. My Maryutka argued, “You’ve gotten used to resting on a feather bed and eating sweets!” He replied, “You’re out of line; you lout!” On hearing this, I slapped him in the face with the fish. The slap was so strong that he was knocked out and rehearsals had to stop. Those at the Institute laughed about it later, recalling how I’d shown my true feelings. I sincerely believed that everything should be as in real life. That was wonderful. Youth!
There are actors — I admire them greatly — who act like icebergs; it’s extremely interesting to observe their performance. Oleg Yankovsky [a Russian actor — editor] is such a man. If an actor only glances across the surface of a role, like skating on ice, we quickly see the nature of the character and there is nothing left to discover; how tiresome!

I’m quite satisfied with how my career is developing — at the theatre and the cinema. I have no reason to complain. Great Efros [a Russian theatrical and cinema director — editor] has seen me on stage, while Oleg Yefremov (a Russian actor, director and theatrical figure — editor] complimented on me when we were in Moscow on tour. On seeing ‘Hot Heart’, Mr. Yefremov went backstage to meet me, telling me, “You’re an actress!” These words — coming from him — were the greatest praise. I wallowed in my success. After my first appearance on stage, I realised that the audience loved what I was doing. I’ve been serving the theatre for so many years and I’ve never had the feeling that someone, while watching my performance, would have said, “You’d have been better not coming on stage.” I received ‘Best Female Role’ awards from the Belarusian Union of Theatrical Figures five years in a row, on the eve of International Theatre Day.

Sometime I receive presents — during the encore. Teenagers bring sweets in boxes and dolls to ‘Madame Adjutant to His Majesty’ [Olga plays Corsican Josefina — editor] and I’ve received French perfume at ‘Awkward People’. After ‘Vassa’, I received a Bible from one man. Baskets of fruit are often presented and, in Ukrainian Poltava, I received a box of champagne. Several years ago, a huge box of apples was brought to the theatre. I still don’t know who gave it. My students also often call me — from different places. They send cards and telegrams to congratulate me on holidays and on my birthday. I live with the feeling that I’m doing a necessary job.
Of course, gradually, my roles have become ‘older’. I began performing mothers and, recently, was asked to play a granny — nurse Felitsiata in ‘Truth is Good, but Happiness is Better’. The director insisted that I should perform a 70 year old woman. One of our actors, Sasha Zhdanovich, was very honest with me. I commented that, as Felitsiata is supposed to be 73, I’d need a lot of make up. Sasha replied, “Olga Mikhailovna, don’t flatter yourself.” At first, I was struck dumb, but then I laughed. Of course, I’m younger than that but I understand that I’m now among those actresses of whom people say ‘they are playing their age’. In fact, I love my age and wrinkles; they show my life journey and experience. I tell myself, “What I can do.” I can’t decide to never grow older. It’s more important how a person behaves than how they look… how they love life and their career, and how they spend time with friends and family. It’s an awful stereotype to associate growing older with sadness, loneliness and disease. Old age can be wonderful. I’ve agreed to perform elderly Felitsiata with great pleasure. I’ve been searching for a mental image to associate with the character and I’ve found it. I’ve been thinking of the song ‘I lost my ring and I lost my love….’ Her private life failed long ago, so she does all she can to make the lives of those who surround her wonderful.

I’ve always loved people who are older than me, keeping in touch with Alexandra Klimova and other leading actresses who are older and more experienced. Like a magnet, I was attracted by their wisdom. I allowed myself to be guided by their words… perhaps influenced by my peasant genes — I belong to the common people. I love old people and look forward to one day being an elderly woman. I can then share my experience and the secrets of acting. I’m rather like my mother, who loves to chat.
My work with young people in the theatre is developing interestingly. I meet many youngsters during performances and they usually ask me for feedback afterwards, saying, “Did I fail in this scene? Was everything ok?” They want to do well and I offer them advice with pleasure.

Actors value others for their professionalism — as in any other profession. However, it’s great when an actor is talented and able to share his spiritual warmth not only in his roles. Such people aren’t self-centred, failing to notice others nearby. They remember that we all have hearts and should be treated with consideration; it’s my interpretation of having a conscience. When we combine a conscience with talent, we bring depth and beauty to our roles. Talent is energy and fire; it sparkles. Listening to your conscience stops you from burning others.

There is a strange trend in the theatre: for actors to choose roles close to their own character. I’m always glad to receive such roles, since it’s an intimate moment when you recognise yourself in your character; it’s like a confession. This may be why the theatre has been called a temple. Audiences subconsciously search for what is close to them in characters. The more frequent such moments of recognition, the more we like a character.

Some say that youngsters are failing to enter the profession but I don’t agree. There are plenty of willing young actors. However, they need to experience real theatre in order to learn. Some schools are brightly package but are empty inside. Directors can become carried away by form rather than substance, forgetting the importance of psychological nuances! They choose an actor by appearance — height and handsomeness…looking for a hero. They aren’t interested by what’s inside. The actor might sound empty when they say their lines but these directors overlook this fact if they are happy with appearances. Watching such performances, we notice an actor’s beautiful voice, technical performance, good looks and bright sets. No doubt, this is interesting but it fails to touch the soul. We aren’t led to think beyond the plot. The mood of a character can be portrayed even by the movement of their fingers and the turn of their head. You’ll understand if you’ve seen Maya Plisetskaya performing ‘Carmen’ or works by the top Hollywood actors Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Barbara Streisand. I love to see not only form but the life of a human spirit. Only then can mutual understanding emerge between the audience and the stage.

We are seeing a change of generations, with many young people now directing Belarusian theatrical performances. In fact, the theatre seems frozen in anticipation of the future. Older people remain while the young are yet to fully take over. We ‘old school’ emotional actors are trying to pass on our techniques to the young.

What can you learn from a professional director? It’s like reading classic literature, since it enriches our personality. Of course, just chatting to such people is very interesting. If you are surrounded by the banal, your existence feels grey and boring. I may be repeating myself but I’m lucky to live and work in such a talented, artistic environment.

I’ve been faithful to the Russian Theatre for 45 years, having lived many lives jointly with my characters. My personal life has been an accompaniment to this artistry (with tours, premieres, communication with my partners on stage and meeting outstanding personalities). In Soviet times, we toured a great deal, covering huge territories: Murmansk, Sevastopol, the Siberian Taiga, the Baltic States and the Caucasus. I’ve seen so much in my life and lived through a great deal. Everything has paid off on the great sacrificial altar of the stage. When you appear on stage, your private life disappears. A true actor always works on the edge of fanaticism — it cannot be otherwise. Only if you serve the theatre to the full and breathe the same air as it does, can you feel joy, pleasure and harmony. When you perform on stage, you experience the greatest catharsis of the soul.

My ‘calling card’ is the role of Lizetta, from ‘The Only Heir’. I performed it for many years before passing the role to Emilia Pranskute, who’s managed to find the voice of the character. Chief Director Sergey Kovalchik has invited me to work as a co-director in staging Russian vaudeville. I’ve also been given a lead role in a new performance, being premiered in June or July. This will be a surprise for the audience. Everything is going well.

By Valentina Zhdanovich
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